University of Minnesota selected as NSF Convergence Accelerator Phase 1 awardee for chemical water sensing

AI-enabled, rapid sensor platform will improve water quality decision making 

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (02/14/2024)—A University of Minnesota Twin Cities team of scientists and engineers is one of only 16 Phase 1 teams selected nationwide to participate in the U.S. National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator’s convergence research Track L: Real World Chemical Sensing Applications. 

Phase 1 begins as a nine-month planning effort. Each team is awarded funding up to $650,000 to further develop the initial concept, identify new team members, participate in the innovation curriculum, and develop an initial prototype. At the end of Phase 1, each team participates in a formal pitch and proposal evaluation. Selected teams from Phase 1 will proceed to Phase 2 in 2025, with potential funding up to $5 million over 24 months.

The University of Minnesota team is developing Aquasense, a low-cost, compact, easy-to-use, rapid water quality sensor platform enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). The platform will include:

  • Innovative graphene microsensors that are cheaper, faster, and more sensitive than existing technologies. The team will first prioritize nutrients and toxic metals, as these pollutants continue to cause some of the greatest water crises. 
  • Exceptional chemical sensitivity (sub parts-per-billion level) and specificity of multiple target pollutants in freshwater and managed water environments.
  • Networked sensor arrays that will enable long-term deployment with wireless communications for real-time data transfer.
  • AI-enabled data analytics for processing massive amounts of sensor and other existing data, for real-time, data-driven decisions and water quality forecasting.
  • Collaborations with a broader team of tribal, local, and state agencies; water advocacy groups; and environmental engineers to promote environmental justice and ensure that marginalized communities equally benefit from Aquasense technologies. Initial partners include the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Zhaashiigid Nooding (White Earth Tribal and Community College), Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Environmental Program, Freshwater Society, and Geosyntec Consultants.

The data outputs will improve capabilities for making timely, informed decisions about water to ensure societal and planetary health. Engagement with diverse communities will ensure that these microsensors and data are accessible and user-friendly to benefit high-risk and underserved populations.

“Being in Minnesota, the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ and the headwaters of the Mississippi River, our team is acutely aware of concerns about water quality,” said Cara Santelli, the lead researcher on the project and an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “The University of Minnesota is uniquely positioned to address this important issue. In addition to the incredible team of scientists and engineers who are leading their fields, we have outstanding, state-of-the-art resources and support at the University of Minnesota for innovation and translation of our work to truly benefit society.”

The project will leverage technical expertise and facilities from the University’s Minnesota Nanotechnology Center and Minnesota Supercomputing Institute. The team will also maximize technology innovation training programs such as MIN-Corps and the University’s Office of Technology Commercialization to expand the partnership.

In addition to Santelli, the primary research team includes University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering Professor Tianhong Cui (mechanical engineering), Associate Professor Yao-Yi Chiang (computer science and engineering), Assistant Professor Chang Ge (computer science and engineering), and Associate Professor John Sartori (electrical and computer engineering).